HOUSTON – It is not an easy thing to impress fans that are used to seeing 11 national championship banners in Pauley Pavilion and a program that has been to three Final Fours in the last decade.
But good vibes surround the Bruins since reeling off a pair of wins over No. 6 seed SMU and No. 14 seed UAB. UCLA has won six of its last seven games as a young roster rounds into form. Leading scorer Norman Powell is the only senior in the Bruins’ nine-man rotation, and center Tony Parker is the only junior.
The underclassmen were not ready to compete against top-flight competition initially, losing to North Carolina by 22 points, Gonzaga by 13 at home and made themselves the subjects of national mockery after an embarrassing 83-44 loss to Kentucky in which the Wildcats at one point led 24-0.
The Bruins lost their next three games, finally winning again in two overtimes against Stanford at home. Some of the players have blossomed late in the season. Tony Parker had a career-high 28 points in UCLA’s win over UAB, sophomore Isaac Hamilton exploded for 36 points in a March 12 win over USC and sophomore Bryce Alford, the coach’s son, is averaging 24.5 points per NCAA tournament game.
By winning late in the season the Bruins drew back in fans that were previously disgruntled about the program’s perceived lack of success compared to previous seasons.
“The campus has been more excited about our team,” freshman forward Kevon Looney said. “They’ve been more and more supportive, following us a lot more. We’re on spring break right now so when we went back there was nobody there, but a lot of friends from school have been calling me and wishing us the best.”
Up against the second-seeded Bulldogs, those outside the program again don’t expect much of the Bruins. The No. 11 seed Bruins are 8.5-point underdogs and 72 percent of voters on Yahoo.com have picked the Zags to win.
“The outside voices don’t make any difference on the game,” said Bryce Alford. “So, we try to just focus everything on the locker room, and at the end of the day we’re still getting doubted even though we’re in the Sweet 16. We’re picked as the 16th-best team here. We know that’s still in the back of our head, so we still got some more motivation.”
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